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Is Empathy Possible?

I wonder about this a fair bit.

It seems to me that, often (perhaps always?), what we believe is empathy (the supposed taking an emotional walk in the other person’s shoes and getting so thoroughly inside their head that we feel what they feel) is really projection (assigning our own feelings to them and filtering their experiences through our own psyches, so that we create the illusion of understanding them, whereas what we’re really doing is exploring ourselves from a different vantage point).

So as I dig into my summer reading, I’m excited to find Philip Roth exploring the same subject and seemingly sharing my doubts about achieving empathy:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank.  You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. (American Pastoral, p 35).

The single most important thing I’ve learned this year, is to not confuse my judgments about other people with fact. Because, guaranteed, I am wrong. I simplify people in ways that lose important facets and dimensions. I project my own fears and biases onto them. I “understand” them through my own inaccurate lens. I misinterpret their words and behaviors.

It’s been a huge improvement in my relationships for me to recognize that I should always challenge my assumptions and conclusions about other people. Nowadays, whenever I hear myself thinking He is like this, She always does that, I stop and examine my thoughts. It’s not that I can’t learn anything valid and useful about others. It’s that my impressions and conclusions are at least as informative about myself as they are about the other person.

It’s impossible, I believe, to ever really know someone else completely. So, instead of striving to empathize and master the internal workings of my loved ones, I’m learning instead to embrace and wonder at their “otherness.”

As Roth reminds us:

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. (American Pastoral, p 35)

Is Empathy Possible?

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2010). Is Empathy Possible?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2010
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